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Spend the night in an igloo in the Alps. Sounds cool, but is it?


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(CNN) — Spending the night in an igloo is cool. And it is, although mostly literally.

As my family sat in a restaurant-sized igloo at the foot of a ski resort in the Austrian Alps in late December, eating a dinner of nothing but bread and warm cheese (read: fondue), my daughter from 10 years summed up the adventure we were living.

“It’s for some people,” she said, her breath visible inside the “restaurant.” The key question that remained at this point was: Are we “some people?”

I was skeptical at first sight. The mounded igloo village at the foot of the Kühtai ski resort in the beautiful Tyrolean mountains near Innsbruck, resembled the “Star Wars” architecture of Tatooine, relocated to the frozen planet of Hoth. I don’t know why I was expecting something different (maybe it was the fictional smoke coming from the company’s cartoon igloo logo?), but it was very, very cold.

Standing in front of the restaurant’s ice bar and greeted with steaming cups of glühwein, tea and hot chocolate, our toes started to feel numb standing on the icy floor, mere minutes into our stay.

After all the guests arrived, our host greeted us and explained how the night would be, in German. We were the only English speakers and while it was unreasonable to expect everyone to speak our language, the translations we got at the end were nonetheless CliffsNotes condensed from what was relayed to other guests.

“Put tomorrow’s clothes in the bottom of your sleeping bag, okay?” the host translated for us. “And very important: don’t sleep anything wet.” We nodded. Good advice.

A guided snowshoe hike circled a clearing between the ski slopes.

David Allan/CNN

There was outdoor activity after check-in. A guided snowshoe hike through a clearing between two ski runs was under a high peak dramatically lit by the crescent moon. While my youngest daughter died on the hike after I tried to tie the shoes to her boot and her sore toes hurt too much, my oldest daughter was in for it.

It was a beautiful and warm hike. I also now have a skill set for tying snowshoes to cleats and trudging them up. But again, the visit was detailed in German and reduced to “Easy way, go there. Hard way, go there”, in English.

At dinner we were never given a menu, so after our fondue (and some kindly prepared red sauce penne for my eldest vegan daughter and my fondue wary youngest) we saw that dessert was available, but after that it was too late to order it.

Our igloo room wasn’t made of blocks (as in the company logo, or any igloo image you could imagine), more like packed three-foot-thick condensed snow around a balloon that has been deflated to reveal a hollow center. An impressive ice mural of what could have been a dragon (which didn’t breathe fire) was carved on our back wall, illuminated by a single light.

The sleeping bags and animal skin mats they provided us were lined up on a single large mattress, which was embedded atop a giant block of ice, like a cocktail of four giant prawns.

As we plotted all the clothes we would wear in the sleeping bag, including hats, gloves, and ski pants, I predicted that our breathing and body heat would keep us warm all night. “We’re going to sweat tomorrow morning,” I said, deeply incorrect.

“It’s like we’re sleeping in a fridge,” my youngest daughter said. We should be so lucky. The ideal temperature for a refrigerator is 4.44 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. But from the happy Finnish guest I spoke to in the sauna, and later checked in by the staff, I learned that inside our igloo there was zero Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) – period of freezing. Outside, where you had to go to get to the bathroom and portable sauna, it was minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit).

We all went to the sauna, of course, a welcome change of mood. Our improvised plan before bedtime was to warm up there, rush to the heated bathroom to put on all the layers, sprint to our igloo, quickly get into the sleeping bags to keep the heat in, and pray for a quick sleep.

By the time we got into our bags, the body heat from the sauna room had evaporated. I would have given anything to have a nice, warm Tauntaun to sleep in.
The writer's family hunkers down for the long, cool siesta.

The writer’s family hunkers down for the long, cool siesta.

David Allan/CNN

To distract from the discomfort until sleep happily took over, I read aloud to my wife and daughters by headlamp an autobiography of Maria von Trapp, whose abbey we had seen the day before in Salzburg. I fell asleep dreaming of a nun’s cozy quarters and thinking that there was no one but these three I’d rather be stuck in an ice cube tray with.

It was a terrible night’s sleep for all of us. They didn’t give us pillows, so we made lumpy ones out of our clothes. At one point, awakened by the cold, I put a blanket over my head to trap in the heat, a small tent of warmth which allowed me to go back to sleep.

At another point in the night, my youngest daughter had to go to the bathroom. She and I put on our shoes in the dark and walked the snowy path to the latrine. “Seek!” I tell him on the way back. “Stars are amazing!” and I pointed to the Big Dipper, she didn’t answer and didn’t stop, eager to get back into her sleeping bag.

When I went back to sleep, I worried about my family. This experience felt more like endurance than fun. At least this aspect of the stay was less culturally appropriation and more historical, as the Inuit (once erroneously referred to by the potentially racist term Eskimo) of the Arctic regions never lived in igloos; they simply served as temporary shelters to survive sub-zero nighttime temperatures.

The next morning we woke up to cups of hot, unsweetened tea in our igloo. We had survived the carbon freezing process. The tea quickly became undrinkable as we put away our things.

Outside, we looked like bulkier versions of ourselves exhausted and cramped on our first day in Austria. This was after a sleepless night on the redye in Munich – thanks to a lone toddler who cried all the way. At least we were warm on this plane, I thought.

However, the other igloo guests looked quite happy. Children who also slept in a cooler played on large blocks of snow. They couldn’t get enough. Austrian guests wore better winter clothes than us, we noticed. It was to them that this icy stay was addressed. They were the “few people”.

The igloo village by day. Accommodation in a nearby ski resort.

The igloo village by day. Accommodation in a nearby ski resort.

David Allan/CNN

After we left I was asked to pay my drink bill. “Which tab?” I asked. It was our warm welcome drinks, which we didn’t even ask for. “Lame,” said my wife.

All was forgiven at breakfast. It took place in one of the neighboring pensions, where the skiers spent wonderful nights in the warmth, no doubt with pillows! The restaurant serves a buffet, with hot dishes. Maybe it was because of the night we had, but we said it was the best coffee and hot chocolate on the whole trip.

At breakfast we talked about the adventure and agreed that the sauna and breakfast were the best parts. And, my eldest daughter added, we now have bragging rights. Like skydiving or skiing in the Alps (which we did the next day), you only have to do it once to mention it for the rest of your life.

The following night, under a duvet in a hotel room in Innsbruck, I felt immense gratitude that I was not falling asleep in an igloo that night, or probably never again.

If you’re the “few people” type for whom a sleepover in an igloo always looks like hearty, boastful fun, Iglu-Dorf offers five “snow hotels” (one in Austria, one in Germany and three in Switzerland) that extend from late December to early April. All locations except Kühtai also have hot tubs.

Bring very warm socks, plenty of comfortable layers, boots, a good sleeping hat, a pillow, and an adventurous, open-minded disposition. “My people” lacked a few of these essential items.

Top image: Iglu-Dorf in Kühtai, Austria. (David Allan/CNN)

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